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Highlands Sky: Stunning Beauty, Grueling Course

Highlands Sky 40 Miler rocked my world. And my quads. Also, my feet.

Fueling up before the first climb, a misty 2,300 foot ascent.
Back in the Game. This was my A race for the year, yet somehow, it sneaked up on me. In preparation, I'd run 50k in February, March and May, so I felt good about my endurance but less confident about my leg speed. Outside of a flat trail 10 miler in March, an impromptu 5K in April and a couple of social insanely fast-paced WUS trail runs, I'd been running pretty easy. I'd been content with being healthy and enjoying my running. Spending a lot of time injured will do that.

Last-Minute Speedwork. I'm not sure that racing a 5k (which was supposed to be a 10k) the weekend before was the best plan as I noted a bit of lingering quad soreness early in the race. In hindsight, it may have been less taxing than the planned 10K would've proven to be.
Typical section of the rocky Roaring Plains trail
This was not my first rodeo. I'd run this race in 2009 when shortly after we started, the skies opened and a downpour ensued. The first and biggest climb featured flowing chocolate milkshake mud. The stinging nettles were hardly noticeable as we struggled to make uphill progress. When we reached the top, the rocks of the Roaring Plains trail couldn't be seen, only feared as we ker-plunked for many miles in ankle-deep (and in some sections, calf-deep) water. There were three major stream crossings and at one, Bill G was swept downstream for a few frightening minutes. Everyone who ran that year had a story to tell.

We begin the descent from Roaring Plains. The mountain laurel was lovely.

Thankfully, this year's weather was unremarkable. It was overcast and not too hot, even when the sun broke through.

I caught up with good friends Marti and Gaynor about 10 miles into the race. They were both having tough days and I was feeling good, and still,
these strong women dragged me up hills and kept my pace brisk when it would have degraded into a stroll. I usually spend a significant amount of time running alone. Today, I drew energy from their company.

Posing at AS #3
The Road Across the Sky. I have a love-hate relationship with roads. Trail is my true love; road makes running seem too much like work. But in a race with 75% trail - featuring boggy, rock-strewn, uneven terrain that demands vigilant attention to foot placement, it offers a welcome break. It's 8 miles long, however, and as you crest each hill you can see very tiny people far ahead on this seemingly interminable stretch.

Marti, feeling peaceful on The Road Across the Sky.
Dolly Sods. The Road Across The Sky travels along the Eastern Continental Divide. The eastern side of the road drains into the Atlantic Ocean watershed and the western side drains into the Gulf of Mexico. This place is a geological wonder. And the wildflowers provide a beautiful distraction from fatigued legs.

Wildflowers along the Road Across the Sky
Long after we've had our fill of road, the course makes a hard left onto Bear Rocks Trail. There's a steady wind blowing and flora is strange and foreign, reminiscent of Canada.
Starting down Bear Rocks Trail
More boggy trail, rocks, and a stream crossing. The landscape changes and we're in dark and lovely woods carpeted with soft pine needles.

And suddenly we emerge into more big sky open meadows.

This section reminded me of the Bighorn course in Wyoming
Picture Perfect. Bring your camera. I took almost as many photos as I did during Bighorn 50K last year. Hubz thinks I could finish a lot faster, but I think these moments rejuvenate me.

I lose Marti during this section when I make a pit stop in one of the spruce thickets.

Raven Ridge Trail
There's more foot-trashing wet trail. Plus rocks.

Boulders. After the big open wide west, there are boulder fields. More incomparable beauty that challenges my weary body. Alan G catches up to me here. We've been leap-frogging since the Road Across the Sky. The gash in his forehead is apparently not serious enough to keep him from finishing.

Boulders that would be great fun on fresh legs
The Last Climb. It's a half mile up Salamander, a Timberline Resort slope which I skied down this past winter. I rejoice when I spy Blue-Eyed Grass. At the summit, another hard left. I shred what's left of my quads on the aptly named "butt slide" as I catch Marti again.

Climbing Salamander
The Home Stretch. It's just a mile or so on crushed rock road until we reach the final aid station. I'm happy to see Kimba, though her offer for a sip of golden nectar nearly derails me.

We run, walk, commiserating, laughing, talking each other through the next push.

There Wasn't A Dry Foot On The Course. One last boggy, uneven section of grass. Dan Lehmann, the awesome race director, mows this so we don't have to run on the highway. The sun is out now, and the wet earth is steamy. Seeing more Blue-Eyed Grass cheers me.

We reach the highway crossing and our menfolk are there, cheering like mad. We grind out the last section of shady, pleasant trail and cross the finish line.

Photo by Race Director Dan Lehman
A Keeper. This is one tough run. The kind that makes you fall in love with a race. I have a feeling I'll be back next year.


  1. Nice report. I really like your pictures too. I had this race on my schedule, but had to skip due to injury. Hope to run it next year, now I now its worth it :)

  2. Reading all these reports on this race has me very interested in next year. This sounds challenging and FUN. Thanks for your great write up and course description:)

  3. Love this report and the pictures. Thanks for letting me experience what a fabulous day that was once again. Great to meet you - and I will definitely be back next year too!

  4. Awesome race report! I really love the picture of the big open field!

  5. It's funny how we all have the same feeling about the Road Across The Sky...thankful for the smooth road!!

    Beautiful pics. Thanks for taking and sharing them.

    And, congrats on your stellar run on a tough ass course!

  6. Awesome race - great to share some trail with you out there. See you in the Shenandoahs!

  7. Great run! You look strong and happy in all the photos! Also, mud running is an art form. Hahaha.

  8. I agree a few minutes is worth capturing all the moments on "film." This looks like a great race! Congrats on another success.

  9. This just looks so interesting! It's so much nicer than road running, where you're like...building...house...building...road...building. Glad you had a great time!

  10. LOVE everything about this, especially the fact that we were writing about our adventures in the "Mon" at the same time, under the same moon. It *is* a bit humbling to know that you covered a greater distance running in a single day than I covered hiking in three (in my defense, that backpack is heavy!)!

  11. Thanks for taking all those photos along the course! I agree with every word of your race report (though I may add a little more grumbling about the road bits). Still.. so nice to see the photos and reminisce about a great day. Thanks for convincing me to joining you. It was great to catch up for the weekend!

  12. Great race report !!! maybe...just maybe a trail race is in my future...

  13. We love your blog! We stole your quote and put it on our facebook page and gave you a shout out!

    Keep up the good work!

    Adam and Tim

    Run the Edge

  14. Nice write-up and excellent photos. I'm digging your blog.

  15. Hi Kirstin,

    I am sorry I am leaving a comment, I can't find your email. I am writing you in the hopes that you want to participate in an e-book we are writing about ultra runners.

    We want to tap into the collective craziness (we mean that as a compliment:-)) of this community to challenge and inspire other people to make their own life an ever-greater creative expression of their own goals and dreams… without limits.

    We would ask you to answer two questions about your experience with ultra running.

    If you'd like to participate please shoot me an email at dreamit@juliossol.com.


    All the best,

    PS: read your post, funny to think that a few more packs of goo (gel:-)), could have made the difference. Fascinating how every little detail counts.

  16. I absolutely ADORE your blog! I follow you on Twitter as well and wanted you to know that in my next post I will be mentioning you and a few other runners that I follow and I hope you check it out!


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